The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Protest is Counter-Revolutionary

Having never lived in New York City, I was unaware of the bizarre number of regulations and restrictions that exist solely or almost solely to restrict and virtually prevent exercise of First Amendment freedoms, particularly the freedom of assembly.  The last twelve days therefore have been enlightening to me.

Oh, did you not know?  This is Day Thirteen of the Occupy Wall Street protest. 

If you haven't heard, that is easily forgiven.  The protest, which encompasses a few hundred people who are angry about the ways in which the U.S. government and its counterparts across much of the world are run primarily for the benefit of entrenched corporate interests rather than any sense of public welfare, has been given virtually no coverage in the American media.  The very same news organizations that bent over backwards to cover protests in Tunisia (which most Americans would not be able to find on a map) have found bigger items to cover on the domestic front; this morning, for instance, I saw a CNN story on Tom Brady's new haircut.  NPR got some particular ire for being remiss in coverage.

But there is coverage of Occupy Wall Street to be found.  Readers can look to the foreign media, which is always better at covering American unrest than our own news sources.  As this is the twenty-first century, people can also find coverage through the various forms of Internet media: blogs, YouTube videos, small publications, and social networking sites like Twitter.  Some of this content is picked up by mainstream outlets, like this article from Time Newsfeed.

It was on YouTube, for instance, that I saw last night the multi-angled footage of one Anthony Bologna -- a New York City police officer -- spraying a cluster of women with pepper spray on the basis of no provokation whatsoever.  This surprised me; surely, police realize that in a world where everyone carries a video camera, actions will be captured and brought forward for investigation? 

Indeed, an investigation has already been started.  My wife was quick to point out, however, that real action taken against police brutality is limited in almost all cases.  I wanted to argue with her.  I could find no basis for making the argument.  Even in announcing the investigation, the NYPD was clearly interested more in defending its actions than in any resolution that favors justice.  (Hey, police are part of the executive branch.  Justice is for the judiciary.) 

The fact is, pepper spray is only the most egregious of the offenses that New York City has perpetrated against Americans attempting to exercise their rights to peaceably assemble.  There are a whole series of ordinances in place that allow for protesters to be arrested, including such threats of the public as:
  • Stopping on the sidewalk (obstructing pedestrian traffic);
  • Putting up tarps;
  • Being one of at least three people visible within a given area wearing masks of any sort; and
  • Marching without a permit.
This last one struck me as particularly amazing.  I was aware that there was a permitting process for large-scale marches, but I had previously understood this to apply to parades.  Not so, and shame on me for not knowing that!

The government reserves the right to deny -- not reschedule, but deny -- any march that it considers potentially disruptive (the very purpose of protest).  This conflict is what led up to the pepper-spray incident previously mentioned: a comparative handful of protesters were rounded up in orange mesh by an overwhelming number of police.  Officer Bologna then decided that curtailing them wasn't as good as just hitting them with pepper spray.

But back to the permits to march.  Every day in D.C., I hear calls from Tea Party activists and Congressional Republicans to roll back regulations that restrict our freedoms.  Are they referring to permits for marches and protests?  No.  Their animosity is reserved for important restrictions, like the regulations that govern toxic metals in drinking water.  Those are the rights that matter, it seems.

Does it strike anyone as bizarre that in the United States, when the government imposes a three-day waiting period and review for someone to purchase a firearm, populist anger flares about how Second Amendment rights to bear arms are being infringed -- but there is no corresponding anger when First Amendment rights can be forced to conform to the preferences of the government?

Many of the angry people who walk around wearing tricorner hats and Revolutionary War garb talk about the Boston Massacre as the ultimate symbol of tyranny.  Unlike the taunting, provokative crowd in Boston more than two centuries ago, the Occupy Wall Street protesters are both peaceful and reasonably well organized.  Do those same people afford to outnumbered protesters in Liberty Square brutalized by police any of the sympathy that they give to the overwhelmingly huge and actually-hostile crowd that confronted Captain Preston and his handful of men?

People are going to have grievances in any society.  These protesters don't have much of an actionable agenda, but the issues are far less important than the mechanism.  A century ago, large-scale riots were not uncommon.  We undermined that sort of instability by reforming government to deliver more of what people wanted -- it turns out that what people will actually settle for is not a very high bar to reach -- and have been better for it.  Gideon Rosenblatt makes this point eloquently, contrasting what is happening in Liberty Square with the recent London riots.  He calls the protests of young people "a kind of societal smoke detector."  

The right to assemble and protest is essential to the workings of a democracy.  When that right is restricted, people who might have been content to voice their complaints in peaceable fashion become more jaded and angry.  People who argue that protest is ineffective are emboldened.  Eventually, the tipping point is reached wherein rage boils over into far more aggressive behavior, including violence and yes, even revolution.  Americans in particular should know this, because ours is a nation born in armed insurrection, awash in firearms and populated by short-tempered, relatively ignorant masses. 

But for those who are ignorant of their history, who think even after the Arab Spring uprisings that being more brutal will crush the spirits of protestors, the road ahead is dark and dangerous.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I'd heard tidbits about this, but it's neigh impossible to find real information.